J.H. Prynne and the Late-Modern Epic

1 December 2009

I: Further Notice: an introduction to the work of J.H. Prynne

The poetry of J.H. Prynne has recently come to the attention of an international set of poets and literary theorists. This interest has developed into a recent edition of Jacket, a festschrift from Quid, as well as the publication of many essays dedicated to the critical analysis of his work. This attention has coincided with the release of his updated collected work, Poems, and, coincidentally, with Prynne's retirement from a teaching position at the University of Cambridge and as Fellow Librarian at Gonville and Caius College.

The attention that the rerelease of Poems has incited is due partially to a growing awareness of contemporary British Poetry, and marks the first time that Prynne's poetry has been made widely available outside of the small press publications of Cambridge. Further marginalising Prynne from a mainstream audience is the fact that his poetry is some of the most complex and linguistically innovative to be released in recent years. The pursuit of and representation of meaning, are two of Prynne's main initiatives and have led his readers to actively pursue his texts, sources, and ultimately the development of new ways of interpreting poetry and poetic language.

The Bloodaxe/Fremantle Arts Centre Press version of Poems has been released in two volumes. The first, in 1999, includes the majority of Prynne's poetry collated from the last three decades, building on the 1982 release. Poems represents a comprehensive collection, with the exception of Force of Circumstance and Other Poems (1962), which were written in a more traditional linear poetics, and which Prynne chose not to include.

The subsequent collection, released in 2005, completes a grouping of poems that demand of the reader the utmost scholarship and investigation. All subsequent Prynne quotations in this essay will therefore be taken from this edition, with pagination given in parentheses. Prynne's avoidance of a cohesive reading of the poem displaces singular meaning and leaves the work to be interpreted as an indeterminate exploration of language. This collection, which begins with 1968's Kitchen Poems and concludes with 2004's Blue Slides at Rest, has garnered Prynne's reputation as both a confounding moral lyricist and one of the most significant poets of the late twentieth century.1

Prynne has also published a wide range of critical analysis and academic prose. His academic works include a monograph on Saussure, Stars, Tigers and the Shape of Words, a book length commentary on Wordsworth, Field Notes: 'The Solitary Reaper' and others, and an analysis of Shakespeare's Sonnet 94, They That Haue Powre to Hurt; A Specimen of a Commentary. His essay on the development of Chinese poetry from the Han Dynasty appeared in New Songs from a Jade Terrace, in 1982.

The transcript from Prynne's 1971 lectures on Olson's Maximus Poems presented at Simon Fraser University has been widely circulated and has been reprinted by the Charles Olson Society. His status as an academic has slowly caught up with his mythological status as the hermetic poet-don of Cambridge University. Prynne's reputation as a literary outsider has also added to the lore, and can be seen as reflective of Edward Dorn's reputation in American poetry; a poet with whom Prynne had a long-standing correspondence, and to whom the latest edition of Poems is dedicated.

The poetic traditions out of which Prynne is writing are typically contrasted against the lineage of Whitman, Wordsworth, Celan, Bunting, Pound, Olson, and Dorn, all of whom have had a major influence on the development of Prynne's poetics. Prynne's work during the 1970's is detailed by the development of a late-modernist poetics. For the sake of a singular definition this essay will focus on the term as defined by Anthony Mellors, the British literary theorist.

Mellors defines late-modernism as it developed out of the ideas of 1930's modernism and details the changes induced by the rejection of subjective rationalism and mysticism that were being purported as poetic devices capable of creating a universalising system of self-expression.2 A typical characteristic of a Prynne poem contextualises the subjective in a fragmented form and strands him at the periphery of the communicative framework. Prynne forces subjective instances of remembrance and communication towards indeterminacy. Late-modernist poetics represent a resistance to the singular expression of the self, which is based on a denial of early modernist narrative traditions.

This ideal developed simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic, though in oppositional strains. The American model, most easily recognised in the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry tradition, ‘espouses a dynamic notion of the objective and seeks radical formal methods, but often undemonstrative diction, to embody it.'3 In Britain, the development of late-modernist poetics was focused around the often mislabelled ‘Cambridge School', a group of writers who engaged with contemporary philosophy within their poems, and focused on the materiality of language and the functional use of poetics as a discourse for the expression of philosophical, scientific and political concepts.

The poetry which developed during the British Poetry Revival, and for which The English Intelligencer and the Grosseteste Review were particularly noted, provided a staunch resistance to the conservative mainstream of the British Poetry of the 1960's. For Prynne, the poetry which was created in this late-modernist period, beginning notably with the release of Brass in 1971, obfuscates the nominative perspective of the self, thus creating a paratactic and polyvalent identity, representative of many fragments and defined by a constant conflict of information.

The overlay of images and thoughts preclude the reading of a consistent series of ideas and forces the reader to dissect frameworks of definition so as to make cognisant the tacit knowledge of the poem. The overlaying matrices of information which typify the formal structure of Prynne's poetry signal the necessity of connecting each word's outlying referential sources to breach the meaning of language as it is used within the poem. The poetic images of Prynne can, if not fully, be partially unveiled through unearthing the sequences of the naturally occurring interconnections and polyvalent elements in such images.

The complexity of Prynne's work is the result of his ambiguous representation of life as a conflux of images and lexical arrangements. Poet and critical theorist Veronica Forrest-Thompson asserts that, ‘the constant movement from one implied external context to another does not allow consistent development of image-complexes over several lines; they appear momentarily only to disappear again.'4 Prynne's lexical, historical, scientific, philosophic and poetic references add to the obfuscation of a singular identity within the poem.

The proposition of reading a text with this multifaceted complexity forces the reader into a structural analysis of history, time, etymology, transcendental philosophy, prosody and the overlaying sources which compromise the authority of the written text. Each of Prynne's poems resist cohesive exaction and align themselves within the possibilities of expression.

The Marxist literary theorist and Cambridge Lecturer Drew Milne establishes the reading of Prynne within a definitive framework designed to extol implicit expressions of knowledge, as well as to enable the communication of tacit knowledge presented within the poem. Regarding Prynne's poetic works, he writes:

Language is understood as a condition of possibility rather than a site of communicative action. The decisive issue is whether the recognition of expressive contradictions can mediate its inclusion within determinate structures of communication and not remain trapped within the fundamental presuppositions of language which encode experience.5

Prynne's late-modernist writing places itself at the cusp of transgressional traditional representations of knowledge and creates from the poem an open field of inquiry. Adorno states that: ‘form [is] the sediment of content'; and in a separate argument that, ‘form seeks to bring the particular to speech through the whole'.6 These statements replicate Olson and Creely's thought, that ‘form is never more than an extension of content,'7 and thereby an examination of this form can produce meaning.

For Prynne, the meaning of any given text is defined through examination and reflection by the reader on his or her relation to the world. It is not the physical form, but the relation the author establishes with the external world which formally situates the subjective, and defines the text. Early on, Prynne defined this intent: ‘It has been my own aspiration, for example, to establish relations not personally with the reader, but with the world and its layers of shifted but recognisable usages; and thereby with the reader's own position within this world'.8 This assertion argues that beyond the relatively static sphere of informational derived analysis and the self-generative criticism of a number of Cambridge based critics, there is a relation established between the reader and the poem.

It is the basis of this relation upon which the establishment of Prynne's poetic rests. The reader is given the task of establishing an influential portion of the text, and uncovering the references codified and coexisting within their reading of the poem and the contextual, socio-historical references which constitute and define the object of study.9 It is my obvious contention that to begin to understand Prynne, one needs to work at it, with some rigour: assiduously reading and rereading lines, words and phrases until units of coherence start to form. Readers should be asked to side with Reeve and Kerridge, who ask us to ‘read on, beyond the sense of impasse'10 and expect moments of severe frustration as ideal and even necessary.

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Matthew Hall

About Matthew Hall


Matthew Hall is working on a dissertation on J.H. Prynne and Violence at the University of Western Australia and a series of poetic essays that pertain to the radical pastoral. His poetry, occasional prose and criticism have been featured in journals around the world. Hall is Editor of Cordite Scholarly.

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